in: Reviews

September 21, 2009

Run to See “Say It Ain’t So, Joe!”

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Run, don’t walk, to the Boston Conservatory’s Zack Black Box theater (8 The Fenway) to see the remaining performances—Sept. 23, 25 & 26, 2009 at 8 p.m.—of “Say it Ain’t So, Joe!,” a new opera by Curtis Hughes based on the vice-presidential debate in 2008 between Sarah Palin and Joe Biden. This ninety-minute opera without intermission is inspired by the composer’s experience watching this debate and produced by Guerilla Opera.

After a short overture, the action begins with Diane Sawyer interviewing Sarah Palin in Alaska after the election, with cardboard cutouts signifying her family. Aliana de la Guardia (also the General Manager of Guerilla Opera) not only is a dead ringer for Sarah, but she nicely captures her eccentricities and gestures as she says that you can really see Russia from Alaska. The vocalization in this opera is a variant of sprechstimme reinforced by pitches from the crack instrumentalists (Rane Moore, clarinets; Kent O’Doherty, saxophones; Javier Caballero, cello; and Mike Williams, percussion.) You can hear every word.

Then the first of several debate scenes introduces us to Joe Biden (baritone Brian Church), who also doubles as Joe the Plumber; Gwen Ifill (mezzo-soprano Amanda Kiel), who also doubles as Hilary Clinton and an interviewer; and a cameraman (Anthony Scibilia), who deftly replicates the effect of television.

Hughes notes, “The words that are sung during the debate…are ‘real’ in that they are derived from the public record. During the other scenes…I took some considerable liberties with assembling the libretto.” There is a nice conceit during the debate scenes: when they are speaking past each other, they speak at the same time, so we hear nothing.

There is one true aria, when Sarah sings that the future is hers. She is alone on stage and elicits sympathy, because we know that she is deluded and wrong.

Another effective scene is a trio between Sarah, Diane Sawyer and Hillary Clinton, lamenting the fact that America still does not have a female president. This is contrasted by Joe the Plumber’s sexy fondling of a cardboard cutout of Sarah while Sarah herself lies on the floor.

The audience response was rapturous. A prominent musician said that this was great music. Another said that she would like to bring it to New Hampshire.

The well-named Guerilla Opera, founded in 2007, aims to subvert the 19th –century grandiosity of opera by focusing on short works in small spaces that are nevertheless tightly organized by the singers and the orchestra and the direction, which in this case was by Nathan Troup. They have commissioned about five such low-budget operas after the baritone Sanford Sylvan heard a song cycle emerging from a Boston Conservatory practice room. As such, they occupy a unique niche in Boston’s cultural scene.

note: an extra performance has been added on Sept. 27- see “Upcoming Events”

Larry Phillips studied music at Harvard, the Montreal Conservatory, and New England Conservatory. In 1974 he was a prizewinner at the International Harpsichord Competition in Bruges, Belgium.

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